A young boy searches for his belongings after a fire at a Rohingya refugee camp in New Delhi in June 2021
There have been several mysterious fires at Rohingya refugee camps across India. Credit: Sopa Images/Alamy

Maulvi Mohammad Ismail ambles through a maze of flimsy tents and crude huts cramped in a small ground on the outskirts of the Indian state of Haryana, north of Delhi. Amid heaps of garbage and waste, these tents are homes to hundreds of Rohingya refugees. Education and healthcare in this camp are scarce, and the children’s laughter that once echoed through their villages in Myanmar now bounces off a barren landscape.

Ismail enters a modest bamboo shelter that doubles as a classroom. He is a soft-spoken 35-year-old, whose home was razed to the ground in 2017, leading him to this remote refugee camp. He wears a warm smile as he welcomes his young students into his makeshift language school on a simmering June day. He sits in a plastic chair while the students huddle together cross-legged on the floor in front of him.

The Rohingya people are a mostly Muslim ethnic minority, who have lived for centuries in the majority Buddhist country of Myanmar. They have faced decades of systematic discrimination, statelessness and targeted violence in the western coastal state of Rakhine. There were significant spikes in the numbers of Rohingya fleeing the country following violent attacks in 1978, 1991-1992 and again in 2016. Yet it was August 2017 that triggered by far the largest and fastest exodus, during what many see as an attempted genocide. Nearly a million Rohingya are now refugees in neighbouring Bangladesh. According to Human Rights Watch, an estimated 40,000 are also living in India.

Ismail says they were lucky to have found a place to live. “Those who could not make it out of Myanmar were killed brutally, burnt alive or hacked with machetes,” he recalls. Now, with the community scattered, he is one of a handful of people striving to preserve the Rohingya language against the backdrop of adversity.

Since the 1960s, authorities in Myanmar have been systematically trying to erase Rohingya, a predominantly oral language that is exclusively spoken by ethnic Rohingyas. Now that so many are living as refugees across different countries, some fear the language is at risk of dying out. But Ismail is determined to prevent that from happening. ‘‘Language is the gateway to our identity,” he says.

Every day he teaches a group of around 30 students at the refugee camp. His passion for preserving the language stems from a deep-rooted desire to maintain his cultural heritage and provide the younger generation with a sense of belonging. He reads a poem in Rohingya and the children repeat it after him, giggling. The temperature inside the classroom, which is covered with tarpaulin, is stifling. But the children seem undeterred.

He picks up another book, its edges and covers half-burnt. “There was a fire in the camp and I was lucky to salvage these books,” he says. The fire erupted in January, leaving the already homeless refugees without any shelter at all, damaging whatever few possessions they had gathered over the years in exile. There have been several mysterious fires in Rohingya refugee camps across India. On a few occasions, right-wing Hindu nationalists have claimed responsibility, saying they did not want the Rohingya Muslim refugees in India, accusing them of “terrorism”.

It’s not only the Hindu far right who are prejudiced against this majority Muslim community. The Indian government, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has denied the Rohingya recognition as refugees, labelling them illegal immigrants. The Indian border police have used stun grenades and pepper spray to prevent them from reaching the country, but still they’ve arrived in their tens of thousands.

Meanwhile, the government has played on fear around the sheer numbers of Rohingya overwhelming the Indian population and putting a strain on resources. Hundreds are detained in jails across north India. The state often tries to justify its treatment of the Rohingya on the grounds that the community represents a security threat to the nation. Several members of the government have accused the Rohingya of “indulging in terror activities”. However, there has been no evidence so far of any terrorist activities carried out within Indian borders by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, the militant insurgent group active in Myanmar. In fact, none of the detained Rohingya refugees in India have been linked to this group.

Without refugee status, the Rohingya people are forced to live in limbo, in makeshift camps on the outskirts of Indian towns, their lives suspended in a perpetual state of uncertainty.

Living in limbo

It began soon after Myanmar’s independence in January 1948. First, there were whispers – rumours of prejudice and hostility against the Rohingya. The government, fuelled by nationalist sentiment and a deep-seated distrust of the community, started implementing discriminatory policies, stripping the Rohingya of their citizenship rights.

In 1982, the community faced exclusion from the list of officially recognised ethnic groups in Myanmar. Subsequently, from 1989 onwards, the military junta embarked on a campaign to eradicate any remnants of Rohingya cultural heritage. Community traditions were met with restrictions, and the Rohingya people faced forceful displacement from their homes.

In 2017, Rohingya militants launched violent attacks on more than 30 police posts. In response, the Myanmar military launched a crackdown, leading to the killing of thousands of Rohingyas and displacing hundreds of thousands more. This devastating assault has been widely regarded as a genocide, including by the US government. UN human rights investigators determined there was evidence of “genocidal intent” on the part of the military leadership.

Violence and restrictions on Rohingyas in Myanmar have again worsened since February 2021, when the military carried out a coup. It was this same military leadership that was responsible for crimes against the Rohingya. Since 2016, the military has been accused of atrocities including mass killing, rape, torture, arbitrary detention and forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people.

To the confusion of many western observers, this happened under the watch of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who was once seen as a symbol of peace and democracy. Despite years under house arrest, she was by then serving as Myanmar’s de facto head of state. She had no constitutional control over the military but nonetheless publicly defended her country, denying in front of the UN’s International Court of Justice that genocide had been committed. The UN investigators accused her civilian government of allowing hate speech to thrive, destroying documents and failing to protect the Rohingya from crimes against humanity.

Existential threat

Stateless and scattered across many countries, the Rohingya’s very existence as a people is now at stake. Ismail is attempting to resist this erasure by teaching the Rohingya language. It is a task with its own particular challenges, as Rohingya is largely an oral language. Like many Rohingya, Ismail spoke the language at home, but was not taught how to read or write it. Instead, he revelled in its rich oral tapestry, soaked in storytelling, folklore and ancestral wisdom. Because the speakers of Rohingya are largely Muslims, there is an obvious influence of Arabic and Urdu in the language. It’s a dialect that the Buddhist majority in Myanmar cannot speak, which is one of the reasons that the Rohingya have always been treated as a “foreign” ethnic group and are often accused of being illegal immigrants in Myanmar.

Although not frequently used, the language does have a script. During the 19th century, it was written with a version of the Arabic alphabet. Later, letters from Urdu and English also made their way into its script. But any kind of teaching in the Rohingya language is banned in Myanmar. Ismail says this was part of a deliberate and systematic effort to erase the Rohingya identity as an ethnic group. The government’s attempts to invisibilise the language started in earnest in the 1960s when the authorities in Myanmar gradually removed it from public spaces. TV and radio broadcasters were instructed not to use the language and it was removed from schools, too. Teachers were reportedly prohibited from even using the term “Rohingya”.

According to Translators Without Borders, between 1.5 and 2 million speakers of Rohingya lived in Myanmar before 2012. Their continuous displacement and dispersal over the generations is another factor that has prevented Rohingya from evolving beyond an oral language into a proper system of literacy. When millions abandoned their homes for survival, they also left behind their generations of culture and heritage. They settled in camps in Bangladesh and India with a handful of belongings and a memory of a language that most of them could not put on paper.

In the camp, where educational opportunities are scarce, Ismail stepped up to fill the void. He began teaching children the Rohingya language, using simple posters and handwritten notes as teaching aids.

Initially, he faced scepticism and resistance from some parents. Some believed that prioritising education in the official Indian language of Hindi, or in English, was the key to securing a brighter future for their children. But Ismail’s determination, coupled with his unwavering belief in the importance of their mother tongue, gradually won over the community. “The knowledge that the Rohingya language was under threat of being lost for ever ignited a fire within me,” he says.

Putting it in print

Others have been working to keep the language alive, too. In the 1980s, an Islamic scholar, Mohammad Hanif, formalised Rohingya into a standardised phonetic script. The Rohingya Hanifi script now provides a pivotal symbol of identity and culture. It also means that people like Ismail, who want to keep their native language strong, can learn it and teach it through writing.

Ismail took to the internet to learn the Rohingya script. “Though I have always spoken in my mother tongue, it was a new experience to learn how to read and write it,” he says.

The Rohingya language had another breakthrough in 2019 when it was encoded in digital systems by the Unicode Consortium, a nonprofit that oversees the global standardisation of digital characters and numbers for use on computers and phones. Now the Rohingya people can send digital messages, and write social media posts and emails using their alphabet.

Ismail started off by downloading and printing a few books from the internet, the pages of which are now worn out from heavy use. These days he sometimes also uses his smartphone to show young students how to text in Rohingya using a Google keypad.

Ismail’s classes quickly became a sanctuary, a safe space where children could connect with their roots and discover a language that held the stories of their ancestors. His approach transcends the traditional classroom methods; he incorporates songs, games and storytelling to make the learning process engaging and enjoyable.

“It might not strike [some people] as significant to teach and learn a language that is on the brink of extinction and also spoken by a small ethnic group. But for someone who has been uprooted and displaced, holding on to their native language is important,” Ismail says, as his students flip through the pages of the alphabet book.

A testament to resilience

Aisha, a shy and soft-spoken 12-year-old student, stands in front of her classmates as Ismail instructs her to recite the alphabet. She does so without a book, while Ismail lip-syncs supportively from a corner. With a smile on his face, Ismail calls it a small victory in the battle against cultural erasure. “These children are our hope. They will not let our language die.”

Aisha has been learning the language for the last three months and she has already learnt the Rohingya alphabet by heart. She says she likes the folktales her mother and aunt tell her. She also likes the poems her teacher recites. “I want to read these stories on my own and maybe write some one day,” she says.

Despite the initial resistance to Ismail’s language classes, the parents of the camp eventually began sending their children to his school. He says they came to recognise the significance of preserving their heritage and were eager to rekindle their connection with the language. Ismail’s simple bamboo shelter has turned into a hub of learning in this desolate ground, resonating with the sounds of laughter, discussions and recitations. Despite the challenges of limited resources and a dire lack of formal recognition, this one determined man has succeeded in rallying the community and has even managed recently to secure a few donated books, expanding his makeshift syllabus.

Beyond language preservation, Ismail’s classes also became a catalyst for healing and resilience. Many children in the camp have witnessed unspeakable atrocities, their innocence shattered by violence and displacement. Through language and education, Ismail seeks to provide them with a glimmer of hope, a sense of normalcy, and the tools to build a better future.

As the sun sets over the sprawling refugee camp, casting long shadows over the bamboo structures, Ismail begins to sweep dust off the floor. When he is done, he stands by the door, glancing over the classroom: a few chairs neatly lined up in a corner, a few charts hanging on the bamboo walls, a tattered rug on the concrete floor and a few books stacked on a plastic table.

“The Myanmar government wants to erase everything that speaks of our existence. They have been successful to a great extent. So I guess it is just our language that should serve as a testament to our resilience,” he says.

This article is from New Humanist's autumn 2023 issue. Subscribe now.